Plans to deliver superfast broadband to the “final five per cent” of the country have been abandoned as too expensive.
Ministers have ruled out a multi-million-pound programme to connect around one million premises that are set to miss out - arguing it would not “represent value for money”.
Superfast speeds are on course to reach 95 per cent of the UK by the end of next year and trials were set up to find ways to plug the gaps.
A year ago, then-Culture Secretary Sajid Javid acknowledged that reaching the “final five per cent” - mainly homes and businesses in remote rural areas - would be “challenging”.
But he said: “The benefits of superfast broadband are clear from increasing productivity and economic growth to transforming family entertainment at home.
“We hope to find ways in which those benefits can be brought to even more people.”
Now those one million premises will be forced to settle for a maximum speed of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) - far short of the 24Mbps that qualifies as ‘superfast’.
David Cameron has vowed to introduce a legal right to demand 10Mbps, a ‘universal service obligation’ (USO) to put broadband on the same footing as other essential utilities, such as electricity and water.
A consultation document for the USO argues it is “unlikely” that most people in remote areas will want speeds of 24Mbps “even if that option is made available to them”. And it states: “So we do not believe that an additional broadband roll‐out programme at this time is proportionate or would represent value for money.”
The decision was condemned by a leading campaigner for better rural broadband, who accused ministers of settling for “rural digital apartheid”.
Graham Long, chairman of Broadband for Rural Devon and Somerset, said: “Businesses moving out of rural areas here in Devon and Somerset because they cannot keep their website - their shop window - up to date.
“It will be even worse if the only have 10Mbps in 2020, because the need for better bandwidth will have grown by then now that we have cloud computing and other shared applications.”
In some areas - of East Yorkshire, Devon, Cumbria and The Cotswolds, for example - more than one fifth of premises could be stuck with the legal minimum of 10Mbps.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has now argued, in its consultation, that a broadband speed of 10Mbps “enables full participation in our digital society”.
It allows “watching video on demand, listening to internet radio or streamed music, using social media, accessing Government services, shopping online and working from home”, the consultation states.
A spokesman said around £250m to be clawed back from existing broadband supplier BT would pay to push the proportion of the country with superfast coverage a little higher than 95 per cent.
And he defended the decision, saying: “At the present time, we can’t realistically deliver a further programme that would represent value for money.”